Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 9, 2017
Matthew 26:14-27:66 Commentary
Some years back I heard what was reported to have been among the final gasping words of the famous singer Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s signature song was “My Way” in which he crooned that when looking back on his life, although he had a few regrets, in the end “I did it my way.”
But at the real end, our own strength is never enough. And so just before he breathed his last, Sinatra said to a family member, “I’m losing.” But to say you are losing implies that you have the sense that you should be able to win. To have a sense of defeat implies that, all things being equal, there should have been a chance for victory. We should be able to keep our life.
I suspect that Old Blue Eyes was in touch with something fundamental in the human soul: the aching sense that we were made for life. Hence, whatever death is, it gets in the way like a roadblock. “Is this all there is?” so many ask as death approaches. As Peter Kreeft once noted, if a child gets a slug of presents at Christmas but still says at the end of the unwrapping, “Is this all there is?”, then there are two ways of viewing this. Either the child is dreadfully ungrateful or someone made him a promise that has not yet been kept. Perhaps he had been promised a new puppy but so far has received just stuffed animals. But if he had been told a new puppy was coming, then the “Is this all there is?” question looks not like ingratitude so much as a proper expectation. So for us all: if we sense we’ve been promised life, then asking “Is this all there is” in the face of death makes sense.
But we all still look for ways to minimize death or skirt its pervasive reach. Have you ever heard about the death of someone’s mother only to ask right off the bat, “How old was she?” Why do we ask that? If someone tells you that her mother took the grandkids to the zoo for the day, do you tumble to say, “That’s nice. Say, how old is your mother?” Probably not. No, we ask how old someone was after they died because if we find out she was 93, we’ll console ourselves that we need not feel too bad after all. Yet another subtle implication is that even the son or daughter should not grieve too much given that this dead person had, after all, arrived at the proverbial “ripe old age.”
It’s not true though, is it? How many times haven’t I heard people say that death still hits you hard, even when long-expected. Death still doesn’t feel right even if it is tinged with some measure of relief. Even then you may hear family members say, “For his sake we’re glad, but . . .” And you know what’s next. “But . . . the rest of us now just plain miss him, that’s all.” It’s the same dynamic that can lead people in their 60s to say they feel like orphans after the last parent dies. Orphans!? At 60 years of age!? Yes, that’s how it feels.
In one of the confessional standards of my tradition (The Heidelberg Catechism), at one point a very important question gets asked: Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death?
That is a big question, so what is the answer? Did Jesus have to go all the way to death to pay for sin? Yes. But listen: why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because he had been made truly human. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because you and I must do so, and had Jesus found a way to beam off this planet in a way that would have neatly side-stepped any kind of death, then he could not be considered just like you and me after all. Jesus had to leave this world via death for the same reason he couldn’t get into this world without exiting a woman’s uterus: because that’s how all people get here. Jesus had to die for the same reason he had to drink water every day to stay healthy, for the same reason he got hungry, for the same reason he had to close his eyes and sleep after a long day of parable-telling and teaching: because in Jesus the Son of God had entered the entirety of human existence and experience.
Sometimes people ask how Jesus could have died considering that he was not just human but also divine. By definition God cannot die, so isn’t there maybe a bit of play-acting going on here? Since Jesus was unlike the rest of us who are only human, did Jesus die just “sort of,” “kind of,” only partially?
That’s a truly vexing question but let me suggest something that may constitute a portion of the larger answer. I’d like to suggest that what was human about Jesus died the same way we will all die. His body gave out, his heart went silent, his brain waves went flat and so Jesus experienced a wrenching separation from the only body he had ever known as a human. But just before that happened, the divine part of him experienced death when the Father and the Spirit withdrew from him. For the first time in all eternity, he was alone.
Sometimes in listening to people, you may hear someone describe what abandonment feels like. Listen to the person who talks about being ditched by both of his parents when he was a child. Listen to the choking agony of a woman who talks about how she felt in the aftermath of her husband’s just suddenly walking out on her, never to return. What you hear in such woeful tales of abandonment is a dereliction that defies ordinary speech. It is not at all surprising to hear people describe divorce as “like a death.” Although a vastly milder scenario, sometimes even those who were unexpectedly fired from a longtime job may report, “I feel like something inside me died.”
Several theological traditions have claimed that it was that experience of abandonment by the other two Persons of the Trinity that constituted Jesus’ “descent into hell.” If so, then it is theologically accurate to say that Jesus did indeed experience death across the fullness of everything he was and is as both divine and human. We don’t need to declare that Jesus died but do so with our fingers crossed behind our backs as though to waffle or hedge a little. Jesus went all the way to death because we all must do so.
How could our God ever be more compassionate than to so identify with us in our humanity that he did this for us and for our salvation?
What’s the line from the old hymn: Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
It’s ironic the bystanders misheard Jesus and concluded he was calling for Elijah. Elijah, of course, had been the prophet who was whisked to heaven in a chariot of fire. Of course, that didn’t mean Elijah had avoided death, but in the popular imagination there was a belief that Elijah was still alive and so maybe could swoop down once again in his fiery chariot. And so having heard what they thought was a prayer to Elijah, those around the cross concluded that this Jesus fellow was hoping that maybe a fiery chariot would swing low to snatch him off that cross and preserve his life after all.
So they quickly sopped a sponge with some wine vinegar to act as a kind of crude anesthetic, hoping they could keep Jesus alive long enough to see either if Elijah really would show up or, much more likely (and much more fun for them to witness, too) to see the disappointment that would come to this Jesus once the realization sank in that there’d be no last-minute chariot ride for him!
It’s not what Jesus had said at all, of course. He wasn’t crying out to an Elijah he thought would help him avoid death. He cried to the God whose withdrawal had just assured Jesus that he would die momentarily, derelict and hellishly alone. He knew there would be no escape for him. The gospels indicate that Jesus had known for some while that he’d come to an end pretty much like this. Yet he was human enough that even he could not resist the urge to shriek out his question as to the why of it all. There was no answer just then, and Jesus soon died in the midst of that deafening divine silence.
And then it all happened. The very moment Jesus entered hell, here on earth all heaven broke loose! The temple curtain split wide open, an obvious symbol that now the way to even God’s most Holy of Holies was open for all. Then, in the weirdest incident recorded in any of the four gospels, Matthew tells us tombs of saints split open and, right then and there on that dark Friday afternoon, bodies came back to life, later strolling into Jerusalem. If ever there were a gospel verse about which even some conservative biblical commentators may raise an eyebrow, it’s this one. The mere idea of these people returning from the dead raises a slew of questions that Matthew shows zero interest in addressing.
But Matthew includes this dramatic event and he does it for a solid reason: it’s God’s answer to the “Why?” question with which Jesus died. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because we all must do so. But because Jesus was more than just a human being like you and like me, his going all the way to death reversed death.
Some say that death is a doorway, a portal to whatever comes next. But until Jesus died, it was a door that swung just one way. By entering death, Jesus kicked that door open from the other side and so made a return to life possible after all. And not just for those yet to come in the future. Sometimes people ask if Jesus can help those who died long before Jesus ever arrived on this earth. Matthew 27 says that Jesus’ work was so powerful, it goes both ways on history’s timeline. In fact, the first people who received new life because of Jesus’ sacrifice were those who had died even before Jesus had! And if Jesus could help those who had been dead for a long time already, you know that he now stands as the gateway to life for all those yet to come, yet to live, yet to die.
“Surely this was the Son of God” the centurion at the cross exclaimed. Recently I heard someone suggest that we tend to read those words the wrong way. What if this centurion was merely being sarcastic? Suppose, seeing this dead-as-a-doornail man hanging limply on that cross, suppose this centurion sneered as he said, “Surely, this was the Son of God!” Maybe he said it that way, or maybe he said it with the astonished conviction we usually read into these words. Either way or both ways, it was an ironic statement. Never before had Jesus looked less divine than when he was so totally and completely dead. Yet somehow it was also at that same moment that he revealed the deepest measure of his very nature. To be God is to be a life-giver, even if doing so requires you to die.
Again to quote Peter Kreeft, birth and death frame every human life. But it’s very difficult to refute the idea that for life to have any meaning, there needs to be something meaningful in the death that frames the far side of earthly existence. If I was born to be in the end no more than fertilizer for a rhododendron–and if, therefore, even my efforts to serve people amounts to little more than the temporary propping up of my fellow pieces of plant food–then it becomes rather difficult to imbue my life with any lasting significance in the long run. It may even start to look rather pointless in the short run.
But suppose instead that there is a God who made me and who made you. Suppose we bear that God’s very image and so are ennobled to do Godly things. But even more poignantly yet, suppose that this God loved us so much that he decided it was not enough he had already made us in his image: he needed to remake himself in our image.
And so when this marauder called death threatened to make a mockery out of the idea that anyone’s life could possibly matter, God through his eternal Son took on a human body and a human life exactly so that he could bring death itself to the one place in all reality where it could be definitively dealt with: namely, right inside the experience of God himself. Once God had let death into his own divine heart, suddenly death died. Death could no longer have the last word once it had come to the One who had been the Word of God from the very beginning. The Word of God would have the last word now, and the last word of God would be the same as had been the first word: Let there be light! Let there be Life!
We came into being in just such light and with just such God-given life. That’s why we find it difficult, if not impossible, to resist asking our own “Why?” questions when death comes for a loved one or when it comes for any of us. We were promised something more and so we ask in the end “Why? Is this all there is?” Despite the grimness of such questions, we Christians find it possible to go on with hope because the Jesus who leads the way into God’s kingdom once asked the same thing. Thankfully, he eventually got an answer. So shall we all. “Is this all there is?” No, it is not. Because of Jesus, this is not all. Not by a long shot. Believe the promise and be exceeding glad!
As commentator Dale Bruner poignantly notes, isn’t it striking in Matthew’s account to see that Jesus dies in the interrogative mood? Jesus died not with some triumphant exclamation or declaration but he died with a question trembling on his lips. Jesus died the way a lot of people die, maybe the way all people die: he died asking “Why?” Bruner goes so far as to say that this final question from Jesus “is the Gospel at its deepest,” revealing better than any other sentence in the New Testament “who Jesus is and what he does.”
That’s a powerful assertion but the way Bruner fleshes it out in his marvelous commentary convinced me that he may well be right. Jesus does not quietly slip away, nor does he treat death the way Socrates is reported to have done: namely, welcoming death as a much longed-for release from the prison house of the body. Jesus dies kicking and screaming. Jesus dies wondering why it had to happen.
She didn’t know what else to say. As a mother, she had always steered well clear of religious clap-trap, even priding herself on not force-feeding her children to believe in anything when it came to spiritual matters. But then a beloved neighbor died. He had been a kindly old man whom this woman’s children had adopted as a kind of local grandpa. But now he was dead, and the woman’s young son was very upset. The little boy wanted to know why this had to happen. So his mother reached for some naturalistic rhetoric. “It’s just the way of the world, honey. It’s part of the natural cycle of all things, and so our friend has now returned to the earth. And next spring, when you see the daffodils and tulips coming up, you can know that your friend is helping to fertilize them.” The little boy did not hesitate. He shrieked, “But I don’t want him to be fertilizer!”
In relating that story, author Peter Kreeft notes that indeed, even the non-religious in this world have a deep-down sense that humanity is meant to be more than fertilizer. Death is a natural part of the world, yet internally we rebel.
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